Watches and cars belong together. They appeal to the same sensibility that gravitates instinctively to beauty and deft engineering in equal measure. The sensory experience of wearing a charismatic watch and driving a car to match is peanut-butter-and-honey for the soul.
But if auto/watch devotees – and lovers of one always love the other – are honest with themselves, the best driver’s watches are not always the ones relentlessly co-branded and marketed as such.
In order to serve as more than a rolling fashion accessory, a true “driver’s watch” needs to be large, legible, and simple. While most enthusiasts prefer not to mark time while enjoying the drive, rallies, races, and concours are run to a schedule. Here are four watches guaranteed to keep you on time for your next Cars & Coffee meetup, club race, or the infield car corral at an IMSA shootout.
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch
References 5002, 5004, 5009
Were you expecting a Rolex Daytona? That’s a trophy for race winners; the Big Pilot is what you wear when you’re still moving fast. How fast? The original B-Uhr that inspired the 2002 Big Pilot revival was a 55mm monster designed to be read while under fire and calculating fuel reserves.
True, the WWII Luftwaffe isn’t exactly a role model, but good design is timeless, and the Big Pilot’s got it. Whatever works at 350 knots in a Messerschmidt will work even better at 135mph in a Porsche 911 Turbo S.
Perhaps “timeless” is the wrong word; you can’t miss the time on a Big Pilot. This is a watch that’s designed to be as large and legible as a flight deck instrument. Even after nightfall (Cannonball Run, anyone?), the abundance of lume makes the Big Pilot an ideal road trip companion. Compared to the gargantuan B-Uhr, a more manageable 46.2mm case ensures that the generally ground-bound IWC Big Pilot’s Watch retains all of the functionality of its mil-spec ancestor.
Gearheads will appreciate the range of IWC in-house calibers offered on the Big Pilot’s Watch. Although major mechanical changes have raised the rate from 18,000 to 28,800 and doubled the number of mainspring barrels, all Big Pilot’s Watch 5002/4/9 models boast automatic winding, a seven-day power reserve, a free-sprung balance, and a hand-made Breguet overcoil for rate stability in any position.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
A dive watch is designed to act as a backup timer in life-and-death submarine endeavors; epic legibility, blazing lume, a dive bezel as timing reference, and robust construction are mandatory. Phrased like that, a dive watch sounds like a “drive watch.”
Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms is just what the doctor (Dr. Porsche, in this case) ordered. At 45mm, the Fifty Fathoms dwarfs standard Rolex Submariners – to say nothing about the aforementioned Daytona – and that wrist real estate is put to use with enormous hands, indices, and numerals. Many versions of the current Fifty Fathoms 5015 exist, but standard steel with a black dial offers matchless clarity among the innumerable options.
Since 1953, the Fifty Fathoms has evolved from a rough-hewn work tool for French naval combat swimmers to a lush, lustrous, and luxurious article of polished steel and glossy sapphire. The latter – which covers both the bezel and dial – prevents automotive door handles, metal belt clips, and interior controls from aggressing against the Fifty’s finish.
That sapphire-capped bezel affords sufficient protection to allow a full-luminova bezel base. Whereas most dive watch bezels only offer a small luminescent “pearl” for reference, the Blancpain reads like your own personal aurora borealis. This erstwhile dive watch is ready for serious nighttime laps of your favorite road course or canyon roads.
Since 2007, when the current Fifty Fathoms bowed at Baselworld, it has been paired with the Blancpain/Frederic Piguet 1315. A purpose-built sports watch caliber, the 1315 is automatic, free sprung for toughness, boasts a five-day power reserve, and most versions are encased in a soft-iron cage that affords protection from magnetism.
And if you’re that 1-of-100,000 enthusiast driver who owns a vintage Amphicar, the Blancpain’s 300-meter water resistance is ready and waiting should your bilge pumps fail.
SINN EZM 10 Pilot’s Chronograph
If the IWC Big Pilot’s watch reflects the state-of-the-art in pilot’s watch design, circa 1940, then the Sinn EZM 10 Pilot’s Chronograph should be considered its direct descendant.
Since 1961, when it was founded by Helmut Sinn, a former Luftwaffe pilot who flew with the original B-Uhr, Sinn Spezialuhren GmbH of Frankfurt-am-Main has been a specialist in robust watches designed for use at high speeds.
Every virtue that recommends the EZM 10 to pilots goes double for driving enthusiasts. Timing a modern road rally – where precise arrival times dictate rankings – requires precision and effortless reference to elapsed time. As a chronograph with a central 60-minute hand, the Sinn EZM 10 offers more than the usual 30-minute chronograph register and eases the process of reading elapsed minutes. Go ahead; try and read exact minutes on a pea-sized Rolex Daytona sub-register… good luck doing that on-the-fly.
Not only does Sinn modify its Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph base, but the resulting caliber SZ01 is so distinct from the core genus that it warrants the “in-house” label. A “tegimented” (face hardened) 44mm titanium case is virtually scratch-proof, and the EZM 10 offers 200-meter water resistance that makes it equally suitable for action on Daytona Beach or Daytona Speedway.
Sinn supplies a sapphire-capped bi-directional pilot’s bezel that can be aligned with the minute hands to enable two concurrent events to be timed. As with the Fifty Fathoms, the entire capped bezel is luminescent. Sinn’s dial is sufficiently bright to view at a glance during nighttime action behind the wheel, and yes, even the chronograph hands can be read after nightfall at the Nürburgring 24.
Helmut Sinn, incidentally, also was a race car driver; he’d approve.
Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33
References 3290.50.00 and 3291.50.00
If the Big Pilot is old-school aviation, and the Sinn EZM 10 is jet-age, then the Omega X-33 is space-age tech. And since even an astronaut needs to drive home from Cape Canaveral, there’s no better quartz watch for logging inner space seat time than the X-33.
This Speedmaster Professional is legitimate NASA equipment; it has been to space as agency-issued gear. Granted, the X-33 never became the “Mars watch” that Omega promised when the first models bowed in 1998. But with a blinding array of timing functions, a piercing alarm, and blazing backlight lume, no watch is more at home behind the wheel under pressure.
Professional racecar drivers and pit crew alike can benefit from the bewildering range of Speedmaster X-33 timing modes. Full-race elapsed time can be recorded via “mission time,” a programmable recorder. The chronograph can be used for gauging positional gaps as they yawn or ebb; the countdown timer can be reset and restarted each time a car pits and departs with fuel. A GMT function allows you to keep track of distant friends who may be following the race.
The Speedmaster’s 80+decibel alarm is designed to be heard over aviation din; it works equally well in deafening trackside areas. Mission time alarms can be set to sound after a certain period elapses; it’s ideal for drivers who may need to return to the pits during multi-stint endurance races such as the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
And when the timid glow of luminova can’t cut through the glare of the nighttime track environments, this Omega’s electric backlight asserts itself. Simple digital numerals can be activated if reading the analog hands proves too tiresome in the heat of battle.
24-hour races leave drivers and crew with little energy to spare, so the X-33’s lightweight titanium case will relieve tired arms during day-into-night-into-day track action.
And you never know who might show up at the podium ceremonies; Cape Canaveral is only 175 miles from Daytona Beach.